Amer­i­can Hookup: The New Cul­ture of Sex on Cam­pus by Lisa Wade

by Lisa Wade, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 304 pages

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Ac­cord­ing to so­ci­ol­o­gist Lisa Wade, stu­dents are “hook­ing up” with drunken aban­don at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties across Amer­ica. But what is hook­ing up? It varies. It might be sex with your best guy friend or oral sex with a stranger. Or it could be what used to be re­ferred to by older gen­er­a­tions as “heavy pet­ting.” It’s best not to try to pin down a pre­cise def­i­ni­tion, though, be­cause in hookup cul­ture that will def­i­nitely earn you a rep­u­ta­tion as “needy.”

Wade writes that it is mainly the cul­ture around sex and dat­ing on col­lege cam­puses that has changed in re­cent years. Though col­lege kids to­day are not ac­tu­ally hav­ing more sex than they were two, three, or even four gen­er­a­tions ago, they are en­joy­ing it less while talk­ing about it more. Re­la­tion­ships are out and ca­sual sex is in. In the world that Wade stud­ied in prepa­ra­tion for the book, going out on pre­ar­ranged dates in or­der to get to know some­one be­fore you sleep with them is a thing of the past. Now, hookups be­gin on the dance floors of bars, fra­ter­nity par­ties, or school-spon­sored events, where “women who are will­ing press their backs and back­sides against men’s bod­ies and dance rhyth­mi­cally.” The goal is to get back to a dorm room. Af­ter that, the proper pro­to­col is to ig­nore each other for sev­eral days or weeks so as not to ap­pear as if you need or de­sire any­thing from the other per­son. Who­ever texts first loses.

For Amer­i­can Hookup: The New Cul­ture of Sex on Cam­pus, Wade con­sulted nu­mer­ous stud­ies, sur­veys, and ar­ti­cles. She con­ducted pri­mary re­search on un­der­grad­u­ates en­rolled in an in­tro­duc­tory so­ci­ol­ogy course and a sex­u­al­ity-themed writ­ing in­ten­sive be­tween 2010 and 2015 at two lib­eral arts col­leges. Stu­dents were re­quired to keep jour­nals about what they ob­served of hookup cul­ture. They were in­vited to write as much or as lit­tle as they wanted about their own ex­pe­ri­ences. These first­hand ac­counts give life to the book’s nar­ra­tive, which is at times droll. Wade’s re­search took her to 24 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in 18 states. Most of the schools of­fered Greek life or sim­i­larly struc­tured party scenes, and most also had ath­letic pro­grams. Wade takes a neu­tral but open-minded tone through­out, sav­ing her moral­is­tic con­cern for the emo­tional ram­i­fi­ca­tions of par­tic­i­pat­ing in hookup cul­ture, in which peo­ple are mean to one an­other as part of a larger game plan. When the goal is to “get some” from peo­ple you don’t really know, treat­ing each other ter­ri­bly is al­lowed and even en­cour­aged.

“Once sex is over, the rule is to go from hot to cold,” Wade writes. “As one stu­dent ex­plained, ‘The two worst things a boy can say to a girl is that she is fat or that she is clingy.’ Clingy, des­per­ate, and needy are ex­tremely ef­fec­tive in­sults, in­vok­ing all the things that stu­dents don’t want to be: weak, in­se­cure, un­able to control one’s emo­tions, and pow­er­less to sep­a­rate sex from feel­ings.” In the af­ter­math of a hookup, “Do not make any­thing a thing,” says one in­ter­view sub­ject. Though young women of­ten get the raw end of the deal when it comes to be­ing treated re­spect­fully — and be­ing sex­u­ally sat­is­fied — in hookup cul­ture, Wade re­veals co­eds to be fully ca­pa­ble of ob­jec­ti­fy­ing men. Prospec­tive hookups are dis­cussed purely in terms of so­cial ad­van­tage by some women, and young men’s bod­ies are de­scribed pe­jo­ra­tively dur­ing the morn­ing-af­ter play-by-play, in which women in­clude the same in­ti­mate de­tails that have tra­di­tion­ally been con­sid­ered locker-room talk among men.

Wade ex­plains that not ev­ery­one par­tic­i­pates in hookup cul­ture. Some dab­ble for a bit and lose in­ter­est, oth­ers don’t de­sire ca­sual in­ter­ludes, and still oth­ers are lon­ers who don’t party. A hand­ful of her stu­dent di­arists never felt bereft by hookup cul­ture and en­joyed it with­out shame or re­gret, while an­other seg­ment ex­pe­ri­enced the worst of it in the form of sex­ual as­sault — a topic to which she de­votes a chap­ter. Though stu­dents at all but the most re­li­gious col­leges have some form of hookup cul­ture, not all col­lege party scenes are iden­ti­cal, so though the book is al­most ridicu­lously en­ter­tain­ing, it does have its lim­i­ta­tions. It would have been in­ter­est­ing to know if stu­dents’ hookup be­hav­ior dif­fered by aca­demic ma­jor, for in­stance. Wade does note that stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in hookup cul­ture more read­ily in the fresh­man and sopho­more years and be­come less in­ter­ested as their in­volve­ment in aca­demic life in­creases.

Wade’s pri­mary con­cern is the de­cou­pling of re­la­tion­ships and re­spect. “Stu­dents … con­clude that non-monogamy in­volves no kind­ness at all. … Stu­dents see two cat­e­gories of en­gage­ment — hard and easy, car­ing and care­less, emo­tional and emo­tion­less — and noth­ing in be­tween. But this isn’t as func­tional as it might sound. It’s one thing, af­ter all, to have ca­sual sex­ual en­coun­ters with some­one with whom you are not in love, but it’s en­tirely an­other to do so with some­one who may have no pos­i­tive re­gard for you at all. In hookup cul­ture, it can be hard to tell the dif­fer­ence.” — Jen­nifer Levin

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